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Adding colour to the prototyping process with full-colour multi-material 3D printing

Published: 6 November 2020 - Rachael Morling

Yariv Sade, director of applications engineering at Stratasys, looks into how full-colour multi-material 3D printing provides the ability to create ultra-realistic 3D printed design prototypes, pushes the boundaries of design realisation even further...

Design has changed over the decades. While a product’s engineering has historically taken centre stage when it comes to bringing it to market, the 21st century takes engineering excellence and product performance for granted. Today, product design is king. 
In a recent McKinsey study looking at the correlation of product design to business success, it was found that design-led companies have 32% more revenue and 56% total returns of shareholders than companies that place less focus on design. The results clearly demonstrate that companies that monitor consumer behaviour and understand a product’s look and feel – from colour choice to surface finish – are ahead of the competition. This holds true for nearly every industry – from automotive to consumer goods, and from healthcare and medical devices to consumer electronics.
While numerous processes and tools are at the designers’ disposal, there are still several barriers to creating realistic representations of their ideas during the design process, and accurately convey them to potential stakeholders and decision makers. A crucial challenge is the CMF process.
In design, CMF refers to the process in which colour, material and finishing is determined and selected for a product. Colour can refer to hues, saturation, shading and colour combinations within the design; materials reflect the feel and character; while finishing is the texture and surface appearance – pattern, matte, smooth, shiny, etc. These elements create the finished ‘look’ of a product. 
For many designers, however, CMF is not integrated enough into the product development process – it is often only reflected in the finished product’s look. This is largely because design studios or SME’s often rely on, or are restricted to, single-colour 3D printing to create physical representations of their digital designs. These prototypes are built to reflect the geometry and functionality of the design, yet they cannot represent more than one colour, nor reflect textures or finishes. The absence of an easy, fast and affordable solution to create full colour concept models or high-fidelity prototypes to test and present a product’s geometry, functionality, and look and feel, is an issue.
Design concepts are therefore split over several mediums. Designers utilise textile samples and PANTONE colour charts, as well as printed and online images, to determine CMF for new product designs. In addition, the product’s measurements, geometry and build are reflected in a 3D file that can result in a basic single colour physical 3D-printed prototype – which can be painted or ‘dressed up’ to more realistically reflect the design idea. This not only makes it difficult to translate the design idea quickly and uphold faith in the product design when presenting it to stakeholders, but it also denies easy design iterations and accurate testing among focus groups or potential buyers. 
In order to have a prototype final product at the end of the design process, some design studios outsource the creation of full-colour prototypes to global suppliers. This is, in fact, a US$5.3 billion market, yet the delivery time for models usually takes several weeks. Furthermore, the associated cost can be several thousand dollars (for a 10-15cm long model). An added challenge comes in communicating the exact CMF look to the external supplier – as the geometric shape is kept in a 3D file, yet the CMF information is carried in other mediums (images, slides, PPT, notes etc). Relaying design information from one person to another is therefore difficult, and leaves room for error. 
As a result, designers typically only leverage this high-end outsourcing option to create a model of the finalised product for marketing purposes at the end of the design process.
Full colour 3D printing 
Full-colour multi-material 3D printing provides the means to create ultra-realistic 3D printed design prototypes in little time, which can be iterated and adapted to deliver designs with a visual impact. One example can be found with Stratasys’ J-Series PolyJet 3D printing, which enables PANTONE validated full colour capabilities and a choice of up to seven different polymer materials  – all united in a single print. 
Providing up to 500,000 distinguishable colour combinations, the J-Series technology not only opens up unparalleled design freedom but gives designers the tool to fully integrate CMF prototypes into the ongoing design process. This saves both time and money, thanks to quicker decisions, improved CMF design iterations, and no external lead times for models. 
Designers can use ultra-realistic 3D printed prototypes as a tool to convey and sell their design ideas to prospective customers and stakeholders. This can also raise confidence in the design idea, without dependence on different digital mediums to present a design – or rely on other people’s imagination to envisage the final product’s look. 
This capability to combine different materials in a single print pushes the boundaries of design realisation much further. This opens up the possibility for improved design representation, as textures and different material surfaces can accurately be represented – from wooden textures and marble effects to glass. Combining this with PANTONE validated colour spectrums brings CMF directly into the prototyping process and enables designers to create 3D printed prototypes with such true-to-life accuracy that they are indistinguishable from the final product.
In terms of consumer behaviour and designing a successful product, full colour 3D printed prototypes also open up the opportunity for AB testing – the process in which consumers are presented with visually different versions of the same product before both response and sales are measured for each. The ability to undertake this market research with 3D printed prototypes (in focus groups, for example) gives designers or stakeholders the opportunity to decide on the most popular CMF design for the new product. 
Overcoming design barriers
Designers can overcome existing CMF design barriers and realise product designs exactly as they are envisaged by using full-colour multi-material 3D printing. 
A technology that can help is the new J55 3D printer. Allowing ownership of designs from start to finish and cost-efficient model development in-house, the J55 gives designers access to an office-friendly, compact, ultra-quiet and affordable prototyping technology. 
So, in markets where competition is fierce and true-to-life design even more vital, it is essential that the final go-to-market products have the best colour, material and finish, in addition to faultless engineering. 
This story featured in the October issue of Design Solutions. To subscribe to the printed or digital version of the magazine, click here

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